Food

Have fries with that -- or just the fries

Beef has 13 times more climate impact than chicken, 57 times more than potatoes

SciAm reports: Pound for pound, beef production generates greenhouse gases that contribute more than 13 times as much to global warming as do the gases emitted from producing chicken. For potatoes, the multiplier is 57. Beef consumption is rising rapidly, both as population increases and as people eat more meat. Producing the annual beef diet of the average American emits as much greenhouse gas as a car driven more than 1,800 miles. I primarily focus on technology-based solutions since they can be the basis of government policy and since many websites are devoted to personal behavior choices, like No Impact Man. Behavior-based strategies really only work on a large scale when societal values change (and/or prices jump) sharply, which is certainly inevitable in the coming years as more and more people come to grips with the increasingly painful reality of human-caused global warming (see "What are the near-term climate Pearl Harbors?") and realize just how immoral it is to maintain current levels of GHG emissions per capita at the expense of the next 50 generations to walk the earth (NOAA stunner: Climate change "largely irreversible for 1000 years," with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe). For a good article on how one meat-loving environmentalist has changed his behavior, see Mike Tidwell's "The Low-Carbon Diet." This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Our well-connected USDA chief

USDA chief made $100k from an Iowa power company

From an AP report: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's income included $300,000 from the law and lobbying firm Dorsey and Whitney in Des Moines, Iowa; $100,000 consulting for MidAmerican Energy; $63,000 from Iowa State University; and $55,000 from other sources, including honoraria, a fellowship, a director's fee and consulting. In addition, he and his wife have $500,000 to $1 million in farmland that yielded $15,000 to $50,000 in rent, plus $7,552 from a U.S. Agriculture Department Conservation Reserve Program. I've mentioned before that Vilsack recently stepped down from a partner role at Dorsey & Whitney, a corporate law firm that has represented Cargill, ConAgra, and other agribiz giants. Some folks want to make a big deal about Vilsack making $7,552 from the Conservation Reserve Program. Not me. I'd rather see him idle land under CRP than drench it with agrichemicals to grow industrial corn. The $63,000 from Iowa State University must be a reference to his role at that institution's Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Agricultural Products, where until recently he sat on the advisory board with representatives of Monsanto, Dupont's Pioneer Hi-Bred, and the World Bank. But I already knew about that. What gets me is the $100K in consulting for MidAmerican Energy. MidAmerican Energy Holdings describes itself like this:

Less tasty -- and not as good for you

Industrially grown produce shows long-term nutritional decline

Talk to old-timers, and they'll often tell you that the tomatoes you find in supermarket produce sections don't taste anything like the ones they had in their childhoods in the '30s and '40s. Turns out, they're probably not as nutritious, either. In an article [PDF] published in the February 2009 issue of the HortScience Review, University of Texas researcher Donald R. Davis compiles evidence that points to declines in nutrition in vegetables and (to a lesser extent) fruits over the past few decades. For example: [T]hree recent studies of historical food composition data found apparent median declines of 5% to 40% or more in some minerals in groups of vegetables and perhaps fruits; one study also evaluated vitamins and protein with similar results. He points to another study in which researchers planted low- and high-yielding varieties of broccoli and grain side-by-side. The high-yielding varieties showed less protein and minerals. The principle seems to be that when plants are nudged to produce as much as possible -- whether through lots of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides or through selective breeding -- they deliver fewer nutrients. It evidently isn't just the flavor that's become diluted in those bland supermarket tomatoes. This is a fascinating insight. We should reflect that for at least 50 years, the best-funded agricultural researchers are the ones work to maximize yield -- that is, gross output per acre. Even now, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is expending hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to increase yields in Africa. Rather than isolate and fetishize yield, perhaps ag researchers should learn to take a whole-systems approach: study how communities can develop robust food systems that build healthy soil and produce nutritious food. (It should also be noted that last year the Organic Center compiled peer-reviewed studies finding that organically grown produce tends to deliver significantly higher nutrient levels than conventional.)

This week in Seattle

Foodie photogs, rainforest adventures, and more

Every week, we compile a guide to the greenest goings-on in our hometown. We send it by email -- sign up here! -- and now it's available in Gristmill. (Not in Seattle? Not a problem -- we've got the inside scoop for you out-of-towners, too.) ----- Combo meal: Elliott Bay Books is serving up a double helping of foodie goodness this Saturday with farmers, chefs, authors, and photographers sharing appetizers and stories from the books Chefs on the Farm and Edges of Bounty. Eat up!Not in Seattle? Not a problem: Head to your local bookstore to grab your own copy of Chefs on the Farm: Recipes and Inspiration from the Quillisascut Farm School of the Domestic Arts or Edges of Bounty: Adventures in the Edible Valley. Or get some advice from Umbra on how to eat local in winter. Come to bear: Award-winning author Ian McAllister has spent years observing and photographing wildlife in Canada's threatened Great Bear Rainforest. He shares his adventures and breathtaking images Thursday at REI.Not in Seattle? Not a problem: Check out McAllister's book The Last Wild Wolves: Ghosts of the Rain Forest or flip through a photo slideshow.

Sticky situation

Salmonella-linked Ga. peanut-butter plant had dismal sanitary record

Is it just me, or has our food-safety system lapsed into a state of decadence that might have made Caligula blush? In the past few days, I've learned that the FDA ignored clear evidence that mercury was entering the food supply through high-fructose corn syrup; and that the FDA and USDA continue to ignore the increasingly obvious threat of antibiotic-resistant pathogens in industrial pork. Now I hear mind-numbing news about the Peanut Corporation of America, whose Georgia plant is evidently the source of the salmonella outbreak that has sickened five hundred people, killing seven, nationwide. Given the breadth of the outbreak and the sheer number of products infected, the company must have owned a mammoth  share of the industrial peanut-butter market; its tainted paste has shown up in everything from health-food store staples like Clif Bars to supermarket fodder like Famous Amos cookies. According to a recent New York Times report, sanitary conditions at the Georgia plant have for years approached the tragi-comic. And despite a steady stream of reproaches from Georgia health officials, the company was allowed to continue churning out peanut butter for the nation's food factories until the salmonella disaster struck. Here's a summary of the company's rap sheet:

'New seeds ... and fertilizer'

The Gates Foundation's techy vision for African ag

In his first annual letter on the doings at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates devotes a page to his foundation's efforts to boost agriculture in Africa. Like the software wizard he once was, Gates identifies a problem and conjures up a solution. The problem is that African food production has stagnated while population has grown; the solution is to develop "new seeds" and make available "other inputs like fertilizer" so that farmers can "increase ... output significantly." That, in a nutshell, is what happened in the U.S., Western Europe, and to a lesser extent India over the past half-century with the rise of industrial agriculture. Gates wants to repackage it for Africa, in what he calls a "new Green Revolution." The document never considers the complex history of agriculture in Africa; nor does it mull the social and ecological effects of industrial-style agriculture in the West and India. Are we still so enamored of our food system that we feel compelled to export it to Africa? A more robust vision for that continent's food future is laid out by the United Nation's Conference on Trade and Development and U.N. Environmental Program. Called "Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa" [PDF], the report emerged in 2008 with the support of more than a dozen civil-society organizations throughout Africa. The report concludes that organic and near-organic agriculture is ideally suited for millions of marginalized smallholder farmers in Africa -- and build food security and soil fertility in unison. The model of development that Gates favors -- essentially moving in the direction of nearly post-agricultural Western societies -- may be a relic of an era of cheap fossil energy and low awareness of ecological costs. Other ways of progress exist -- and I wish our most influential and best-funded foundation would explore them.

Some heavy metal with that sweet roll?

The FDA sat on evidence of mercury-tainted high-fructose corn syrup

High-fructose corn syrup rose from obscurity to ubiquity starting in the late 1970s, borne up by an informal public-private partnership between grain-processing giant Archer Daniels Midland and the federal government. For me, HFCS is at best a highly processed, lavishly subsidized, calorie-heavy, nutritional vacuum. I recently visited a public high school in Boone, N.C. The main hall literally hummed with machines peddling variations on Coca-Cola's formula for success: fizzy water with artificial flavor, artificial color, added caffeine, and a jolt of HFCS. Other machines displayed snack "foods" tarted up with HFCS. Why are we feeding our kids this crap, again? Now comes news that makes even an HFCS cynic like me do a spit-take over my home-brewed morning coffee. Turns out that HFCS is commonly tainted with mercury -- a highly toxic substance -- according to a peer-reviewed report published by Environmental Health (abstract here; PDF of the must-read full text here.) The Environmental Health study draws on samples of high-fructose corn syrup taken straight from the factory. But no one drinks the stuff straight. What about, say, cookies sweetened with HFCS? The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy plucked HFCS-containing products from supermarket shelves and tested them for mercury. The result? Overall, we found detectable mercury in 17 of 55 samples, or around 31 percent Traces of mercury turned up in name-brand products from makers including Quaker, Hunt's, Manwich, Hershey's, Smucker's, Kraft, Nutri-Grain, and Yoplait. That a ubiquitous industrial-food ingredient such as HFCS should be tainted by mercury is bad enough. But it gets worse. The FDA has apparently known about this since 2005 -- and done nothing to publicize it or change it.

Not so smooth

Tainted peanut butter and our troubled food system

An email from a PR person recently hit my inbox claiming that by high-school graduation, the average American has consumed 1,500 peanut butter sandwiches. I certainly did my bit to hold up the average; to this day I revere the unctuous paste of crushed, roasted peanuts. Now, of course, comes news that a large producer of this protein-packed national treat (widely reviled, for reasons I can't fathom, by people in other nations) has been sending out product that's tainted by a particularly nasty strain of salmonella. The New York Times' Kim Severson has a good piece on how the suspect peanut butter moved through the industrial food system, working its way into products as diverse as Clif Bars and Famous Amos Cookies. News accounts don't typically mention that good old peanut butter has been tainted for a while now -- by sweeteners and dodgy industrial products. Look at Jif (not implicated in the salmonella outbreak), which is owned by Smuckers, which also owns Crisco, Pillsbury, and Hungry Jack. Merely roasting peanuts and pureeing them with a little salt isn't enough for the makers of Jif peanut butter. Its ingredients include: roasted peanuts and sugar, plus "2 PERCENT OR LESS OF: MOLASSES, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED VEGETABLE OIL (SOYBEAN), FULLY HYDROGENATED VEGETABLE OILS (RAPESEED AND SOYBEAN), MONO- AND DIGLYCERIDES AND SALT." Yuck. Come to think of it, the PR person whose email got me thinking about this issue was actually peddling a smart solution: a high-powerd kitchen contraption that allows you to make your own peanut butter (among many other things). As our famously fragmented food-oversight system continues to fail and our industrial-food purveyors continue to pump unnecessary crap into our food, do-it-yourself solutions make more and more sense.

Ruminations on the Obama era, with a side of spicy peanut sauce

A time for reflection (about food, of course). Photo: Caroline Härdter Even those of us in the hectic world of restaurants must occasionally take a break, and so it is that Inauguration Day found me in the High Desert north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I took the train from my home in Iowa and am now enjoying the healing waters at Ojo Caliente and reflecting on the new world we’ve entered. Much has been said about the myriad ways this milepost in history marks profound change: in matters of state, matters of race, matters of politics and compassion; and …

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