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Blame it all on my roots: Local food sees a resurgence in the South

A still from the documentary Eating Alabama.

People in Alabama love to gather and, when they do, it’s usually around football or religion and it is always fortified with plenty of food and drink. What would happen, the organizers of a recent event called the Alabama All-Star Food Festival wondered, if you gathered people just for the eating and drinking -- and elevated the discussion of local food in the region while you were at it?

Yes, there was pulled pork and white bread drowning in sauce, but the convention center where the recent All-Star Food Festival was held on account of rain was also full of Gulf shrimp and grits, local gumbo, crab cakes, and of course cold cans from Good People and Back Forty, two of the state’s three microbreweries. The building filled up with farmers, chefs, and food pioneers celebrating a new wave of Alabama food, and wafting over the sterile convention center air was the smell of a place regaining its culinary roots.

As agriculturally rich as Alabama is -- both in soil and tradition -- the state produces less than 5 percent of the food consumed there.

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Politicians, advocates make an 11th-hour push for a better farm bill

Senator Debbie Stabenow, head of the Senate Ag Committee, has pledged to get a farm bill passed by September. (Photo by Lance Cheung for the USDA.)

Right now, the Farm Bill needs a hero, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow thinks she's up for the job. Despite serious setbacks, the Democrat from Michigan is confident she and the committee she chairs can work with the House committee to pass a new farm bill before the current one runs out in September.

And, while hearing Stabenow speak at a conference last week, I just about believed her. The senator has worked on a handful of farm bills before this one and she knows what it takes. But, as I mentioned in a recent post, she’s up against a formidable round of cuts. The Tea Party-driven House Agriculture Committee not only wants to cut $33 billion (compared to the Senate’s $23 billion), but they want to make most of those cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps).

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‘Weight of the Nation’ takes a realistic look at a looming crisis

HBO has a history of tackling serious American health-care crises. In recent years, the cable network has taken on addiction and Alzheimer's to much critical acclaim. And now the network has turned its attention to another huge health problem: obesity and its enormous economic, emotional, social, and health cost on individuals, families, communities, and the country at large.

As Americans have gained weight in recent years, rates of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other obesity-related health problems have also skyrocketed. Rates of Type 2 diabetes (once known as “adult-onset diabetes”) are soaring among kids. And this is a generation of people that may well die at a younger age than their parents, largely because of medical concerns associated with excess weight.

These facts have become commonplace to those of us who have been paying attention. Still, The Weight of the Nation: Confronting America's Obesity Epidemic serves as a clarion call to the country to take action -- and fast -- to combat this pernicious, complex problem that has myriad root causes.

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It’s official: China now eats twice the meat we do

If meat eating is a race, China is so far ahead of us we can't even see what color shorts it's wearing. Americans still eat about twice as much of the stuff on a per-person basis, but, well, China has a lot more people.

If you like geeking out about who eats what where and how it impacts the environment, you might enjoy spending some time with this very data-rich post about the recent doubling of China’s meat consumption from the Earth Policy Institute (EPI). But, for those who want a cheat sheet, I've collected what I think are some of the most memorable bits below.

First, take a look at this very telling chart, which shows plain and clear how fast things have been changing:

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Would you like a bad farm bill — or a terrible one?

Photo by Jeff Cushner.

The 2012 Farm Bill finally appears to be moving forward. Sort of.

On Friday, the Senate Agriculture Committee released their draft of the half-trillion-dollar bill. But not much has actually changed for the better since the behind-closed-doors "Secret Farm Bill" process from last fall. Ag Committee members are still planning deep cuts to crucial conservation funding that both keeps farmers from planting up every acre of available land and ensures that their farming techniques don't endanger clean water and air. Meanwhile, blustery boasts of eliminating farm subsidies are highly exaggerated: Last week, for example, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that "farm subsidy days are numbered." But as was decided last fall, the committee simply plans to shuffle the bulk of "direct payment" subsidy dollars over to crop insurance, where they will continue to prop up the "Big Five" commodity crops (corn, soy, wheat, rice, and cotton).

Shortly after the draft was released, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) put out a statement claiming the bill “will do more harm than good.” Here's more from EWG Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources Craig Cox:

It needlessly sacrifices conservation and feeding assistance programs to finance unlimited insurance subsidies and a new entitlement program for highly profitable farm businesses. Rather than simply ending the widely discredited direct payment program, the Senate Agriculture Committee has created an expensive new entitlement program that guarantees most of the income of farm businesses already enjoying record profits. Replacing direct payments with a revenue guarantee program is a cynical game of bait-and-switch that should be rejected by Congress.

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Paper asks: Does high-fructose corn syrup contribute to a rise in autism?

Photo by Robert Bradley.

I know what you’re thinking: “Tom, it’s been ages since you wrote about high-fructose corn syrup.” And you’re right! It has. But as I’m feeling petulantly defiant, I think it’s time to take another look at America’s favorite sweetener. You see, while the HFCS industry still claims there’s no difference between how the body handles HFCS and sugar, a new study has come out suggesting just the opposite. And in a very big way.

The blaring headline version of the new study’s conclusion would read: “High-Fructose Corn Syrup Causes Autism.”

And while that may be a bit of an overstatement, it’s not off by much. In a provocative new peer-reviewed study published in Clinical Epigenetics, researchers led by a former FDA toxicologist purport to have found a very real link between HFCS consumption and autism.

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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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Study: GMO crops are killing butterflies

Photo by David Slater.

We’re all familiar with Big Ag’s bad reputation of picking on small-scale and organic farmers. Now Monsanto and its cronies are beating up an even more innocuous set of victims: beautiful, defenseless monarch butterflies.

A new study from the University of Minnesota and Iowa State University fingers Monsanto’s genetically modified corn and soybean crops as the culprit behind monarch butterflies’ declining populations.

Between 1999 and 2010, the same period in which so-called GMO crops became the norm for farmers, the number of monarch eggs declined by an estimated 81 percent across the Midwest, the researchers say.

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Corn, corn everywhere — and not a drop to eat

This spring, commodity farmers will plant more corn, soy, and wheat than they have since World War II.

If you want to understand the state of American commodity agriculture at the moment, you need only read this recent Bloomberg article. It begins:

U.S. farmers will plant the most acres in a generation this year, led by the biggest corn crop since World War II, taking advantage of the highest agricultural prices in at least four decades.

They will sow corn, soybeans and wheat on 226.9 million acres, the most since 1984, a Bloomberg survey of 36 farmers, bankers and analysts showed. The 2.5 percent gain means an expansion the size of New Jersey, as growers target fields left fallow last year and land freed up from conservation programs.

According to the article, American farms brought in a net income of over $100 billion last year. As farmer Todd Wachtel told Bloomberg, “There is unlikely to be any ground that won’t be planted this year ... Farmers know that they have to plant more when prices are high because they may not last.”