Vilsack sets the table

It's official: Nutrition will play a big role in reform at the USDA

After reading Tom Philpott's post on Tom Vilsack's recent comments to the WaPo, I think it's worth digging in a bit more. To this point, we've all had to be content with reading tea leaves and parsing statements. But now we are finally getting a taste of the tea. Philpott highlighted Vilsack's line about his desire to represent the interests of those "who consume food" -- a long-awaited distinction to be sure. Of course, claiming to represent eaters is no panacea. The USDA can easily describe its efforts to support a system that provides vast amounts of cheap calories as "helpful" to consumers -- and that kind of disingenuous wordplay would be par for the course at the old USDA. But it appears that Vilsack takes a broader, more progressive view as he pointed out the following: His first official act was the reinstatement of $3.2 million in grant funding for fruit and vegetable farmers that had been rescinded in the final days of the Bush administration. Though the dollar amount was small, Vilsack said it sent a message of his emphasis on nutritious food.

More to Vilsack than meets the eye?

WaPo on the new USDA chief

As Tom Laskawy pointed out here a few days ago, controversy rages around new USDA chief Tom Vilsack's choice of deputy secretary -- traditionally a powerful figure within the agency, tasked with implementing policy in a sprawling bureaucracy. The sustainable-ag world is rallying around Chuck Hassebrook, director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska, who's thought to be under serious consideration for the post. Evidently, the choice is being held up because Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) is threatening to fight it in the ag committee. It's pretty unsavory stuff -- Conrad is evidently furious that Hassebrook supports stricter limits on subsidies paid to a single farm (a policy also supported by Vilsack and President Barack Obama). Astonishingly, this back-room brawl in what used to be a back-water agency has gotten high-profile attention. NYT pundit Nicholas Kristof weighed in on his blog recently. As I've written before, the USDA suddenly operates under the glare of media attention. Can anyone remember a similar situation at USDA during Bush II's reign? I tried to make a fuss when Bush chose a deputy secretary who had served as president of the Corn Refiners Association. No one seemed to see what the big deal was. Those days are over. Now the USDA chief's got reporters bird-dogging him about his attitude toward reform. And he's been making an effort -- unprecedented, as far as I know -- to soothe his critics in the sustainable-food world. Here he is waxing downright Pollanesque to a Washington Post reporter:

Cheap-chicken ad from KFC hides true cost of food; here’s a tastier, low-cost alternative

What’s he hiding? Undeterred by the thorough trouncing he received last time he threw down the gauntlet, the Colonel has placed it gingerly at my feet once more, with another apocryphal advertisement that premiered during — what else? — the Super Bowl. I know that times are tough, and every business has a right — perhaps even a duty — to make itself at least appear to be the frugal choice. I get that; I really do. Even my own restaurant has cut prices, introduced lower-cost fare, and offered bargains for repeat business. We’re all in this together, and we …

(Soy)bean counting

Direct and organic farm sales rise rapidly, new census shows

Direct sales from farmers rose 49 percent, and organic farm sales more than tripled from 2002 to 2007, new USDA farm census data show. USDA released the 2007 Agriculture Census data today, giving Americans a far more detailed understanding of agricultural trends -- just as interest in local foods expands dramatically. For me, one of the key indicators of the growth of interest in community-based foods is the rapidly rising sales of food direct from farmers to consumers. Direct food sales rose a whopping 49 percent to $1.2 billion in 2007, up from $812 million in 2002. This includes farmstand, farmers market, internet, or other direct sales of fruit, vegetables, meats, and many other foods.

Maple flag raised the red flag

Canada saved us from more bad peanuts

In the stream of news about the troubling "our peanuts are tainted and our food system is whack" situation, this gem has floated to the surface: It was Canada that first raised the red flag on Peanut Corp's products last spring. The tale unfurls a bit like a parody of bumbling agency hijinks, but the moral is clear: Canada. Always. Rocks.

Eating their words

On the importance of getting personal with your food

William Emery, author of Edges of Bounty. Real food doesn't often compete with the delicious paper-and-ink smell of bookstores, but last Saturday, chefs, farmers, photographers, and writers filled Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Company with their wares: two appetizing reads. The back-to-back book events featured the authors of Chefs on the Farm and Edges of Bounty. One lesson I walked away with that day was that food is only as good as the relationships on which it's based. These relationships can be between soil and seed, eater and herb, farmer and goat, or even you and your neighbors. Both books' authors reinforced this idea and went on to suggest that diverse, well-tended, and personal relationships produce the best meals and the best stories.

The crop-diversity crisis

By naming the root cause behind food crises, we stand a chance at solving them

This is a guest post by Cary Fowler, executive director of the Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust and co-author of Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity. ----- Southern Africa, 2030. A throng of emaciated people waits for food rations to arrive. The maize crop has failed, devastated by hot weather and drought. Yet again. A "food crisis?" Yes. That's what we'll call it in 22 years. But not today. If we want to do something about future food crises, we should name them today, and name them properly. Problems unnamed or improperly named are problems left unsolved. In many cases, what we call food crises are more precisely thought of as crop-diversity crises. That's what history's most famous "food crisis" -- the Irish potato famine -- really was. A paper recently published Science -- abstract here -- by a group of scholars with whom the Crop Diversity Trust collaborates, predicts a drop in maize (corn) yields of 30 percent in southern Africa by 2030 as a result of climate change, unless new climate-ready varieties of maize are developed. A huge drop in production of the region's most important food crop will bring instant famine.

Fish stories

Impressions from the Seafood Summit in San Diego

My plunge into the complex world of sea stewardship has been invigorating but also overwhelming. I find myself among literally hundreds of people who know various aspects of the topic intimately. My mind buzzes with ideas to develop and questions to ask -- more than can be done in the span of a few days. I'll be developing Grist's coverage of the impacts and potential of seafood production over the next weeks. In the meantime, here are some impressions:

So sushi me

A new sustainable sushi book, restaurant, and debate

Sustainable Sushi: A Guide to Saving the Oceans One Bite at a Time, the definitive guide to sustainable sushi, was written by Casson Trenor, alum of the International Environmental Policy Program at the Monterey Institute. What I particularly like about this volume is that Casson outlines vegetarian alternatives to fish at the end of the book, since as he freely admits, not eating fish is one of the best ways to protect the oceans. Casson is not only spreading the printed word, but also walking the walk by putting all of his knowledge into practice at his new sushi and sake bar Tataki Sushi in San Francisco -- the world's first sustainable sushi restaurant. It has garnered rave reviews and has been nominated for the city's No. 1 sushi restaurant. He is constantly updating the menu to keep pace with developments in science, policy, and business practices. And for anyone who can make it to Monterey, Calif. on Feb. 19, Casson along with Kim McCoy of Seashepherd (and the star of the show Whale Wars), Stanford PhD student Dane Klinger, and myself will be participating in a debate entitled, "Seafood sustainability: Is it real and is it enough?" Info here.