Food

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Change we can believe in at USDA?

All eyes on ag chief Vilsack's undersecretary pick

There have been whispers recently from Washington, D.C., that indicate that the wheels of change are grinding to a halt even before the Inauguration of our next President takes place. The recent nomination of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as Secretary of Ag was a disappointment to many in the sustainable ag and family farm community because of Vilsack's close relationship with agribusiness and his penchant for promoting biotech and corn-based ethanol. Despite some positive comments during his confirmation hearing regarding nutrition, local foods and climate change, many in the sustainable ag community remain skeptical, while some remain hopeful. I've written previously, as have others, to place Tom's record in context; that he was the first Democratic governor of Iowa in 40 years and that during his governorship he had to contend with a Republican House and Senate. This will not be the case when he heads the USDA with solid majorities in Congress, a call for "change in America" and support from the White House. There will be no one to blame for failing to put forward a progressive agenda for America's food and farm future.

Food security and global warming: Monsanto versus organic

Organic farming beats genetically engineered corn as response to rising global temperatures

This week Science published research ($ub. req'd) detailing the vast, global food-security implications of warming temperatures. The colored graphics are nothing short of terrifying when you realize the blotches of red and orange covering the better part of the globe indicate significantly warmer summers in coming decades. The implications of the article are clear -- we need to be utilizing agricultural methods and crops that can withstand the potential myriad impacts of global climate change, especially warmer temperatures. The article significantly notes, "The probability exceeds 90 percent that by the end of the century, the summer average temperature will exceed the hottest summer on record throughout the tropics and subtropics. Because these regions are home to about half of the world's population, the human consequences of global climate change could be enormous." Whether you believe global warming is part of a "natural cycle" or a man-made phenomenon is irrelevant. The bottom line is that our earth is rapidly warming, and this is going to drastically affect our food supply. We must undertake both the enormous task of reducing our carbon emissions now to avert the worst, while at the same time adapting our society to the vast and multitudinous effects of unavoidable global climate change. Failing to do either will, as the Science article indicates, have dire effects on a large portion of our world's population. Determining the best course of action for ensuring food security in the face of global climate change remains a challenging task. Recognizing that climate change is slated to affect developing countries and small-scale farmers the most is a crucial point. Such understanding enables people to realize that viable solutions must be accessible, affordable, and relevant to the billions of small-scale farmers in the developing world. Unfortunately, it appears that some of the solutions on the table fail to meet these criteria. Last week, Monsanto made a big public relations splash by filing documents with the FDA regarding a drought-tolerant GM corn variety it is developing with a German company, BASF. Monsanto claims that in field trials, the corn got 6-10 percent higher yields in drought-prone areas last year, but the release is extremely short on details. Regardless of the reality, Monsanto is presenting the corn as a way to help improve on-farm productivity in other parts of the world, notably Africa. Yet, absent from the media hype were the many technical and social problems with Monsanto's corn.

Choice nuggets

Interesting food articles from around the web

My browser's blowing up again with interesting tidbits from around the web. Time to serve up another platter of choice nuggets. • I've been obsessing over a New York Times blog post on "The 11 Best Foods You Aren't Eating," which originally ran way back in June but was recently revived because of its popularity. The choices have been declared by nutritionist Jonny Bowden as packed with nutrients. They're also all extremely flavorful, and (with one exception) economical. Most of them carry a kind of unearned stigma. Beets, for example, are one of our most glorious vegetables, but their reputation has been ruined by deplorable canned versions that prevailed in the '70s. Why don't Americans revere cabbage? I can't imagine a better way to consume something fresh and crunchy in the winter than a red-cabbage salad, dressed simply with lemon juice and olive oil. Canned sardines? People tend to recoil from this nutrient-dense, abundant, and, yes, delicious fish. I used to despise them, too; now I can't remember why. (Check out this recipe I conjured up for pasta with sardines a few years back.) And prunes (delicately called in the article "dried plums")? Fantastic -- and unjustly scorned. In an ideal world, this sort of list would be getting hung up in school-cafeteria kitchens across the land, where skilled cooks would debate about how best to teach children to love them. In our own fallen world, school-cafeteria kitchens barely exist (they been replaced by reheating centers for churning out Tyson chicken nuggets), and skilled cooks have long since been sent packing.

Iffy pop

Why conventional popcorn sucks, and what you can do about it

Dear Lou, What about popcorn? Is it safe, healthy, and free of pesticides? What exactly is in the artificial butter flavor? Thanks,Greenee Trailer Trash from Mississippi

Maintaining healthy wild-oyster beds isn't quite as easy as oyster pie

Pearl, interrupted. I have long been partial to oysters. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I came to understand the environmental challenges they face. Many folks assume that water pollution poses the main threat to oysters. Turns out the real damage comes from water scarcity — specifically, a lack of freshwater draining into coastal areas, often due to overdevelopment. At a Southern Foodways Alliance a couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to hear a talk by Robb Walsh, a Houston-based food journalist. Walsh had heard about the attempts of conservationists and the states that border …

Quicksilver lining

Jeremy Piven's sushi addiction: good for mercury awareness

Whether you believe the Hollywood rumor that Jeremy Piven dropped out of the Broadway production of Speed-the-Plow due to a heavy regime of partying and a subsequent rehab session, or his doctor's assertion that the star was ill due to mercury poisoning from a high dose of sushi (two servings per day, Pivs? Good Lord), the winner in this agent's nightmare is awareness of mercury contamination. Piven went on Good Morning America on Thursday to explain himself, warn about excessive consumption of fish high on the food chain like tuna, and point people to BlueVoice.org. BlueVoice correctly pins the blame largely on coal-burning power plants and their propensity to sprinkle lakes, rivers, and oceans with emissions high in methylmercury that bioaccumulates up the food chain. I'd call that, um, a quicksilver lining.

Shall I compare thee to a yummy filet?

An ode to the sea kitten

Today we give a tip o' the carp To the bitterlings at PETA Who've thought of yet another way To make us better eatas. Agog at all our fishy friends That on sharp hooks have bitten, They've launched a cutesy-boots campaign Called, yes, "Save the Sea Kitten!" If fish were "kittens," so they say, You'd view them differently -- Your tuna would change if today's lunch Were Kitten of the Sea.

Farm-policy reform -- where to start?

Trying to restructure the House Agriculture Committee might not be worth it

Michael Pollan suggested at a recent Grist potluck -- note to editors: for future reference, I make a mean lemon-cilantro chicken -- that we could improve "the situation for food policy" in Congress if we could: Make the House agriculture committee exclusive. The most important committees in the House -- Energy, Finance, etc. -- are "exclusive," which means their membership has to be drawn from diverse geographical and ideological sources. Ag isn't exclusive, which means it can be (and is) packed with representatives of Big Ag. It's where decent ag legislation goes to die. Pollan has been advocating this kind of committee reform for a while. In fact, he mentioned the idea in a Q&A follow up to his "Farmer in Chief" manifesto in the New York Times. But I think it's worth pointing out what it does and does not mean to make a House committee exclusive, and why it might not accomplish much. Warning: This post gets fairly deep into the weeds on House committee structure. Exclusivity does not, according to the Congressional Research Service, require geographical or ideological diversity. What exclusivity does is distribute plum assignments and ensure that individual members don't serve on too many powerful committees -- a member who sits on an exclusive committee can sit on no other committee. Only a few committees are considered powerful enough to warrant such limits (keeping in mind that each party can declare its own set of exclusive committees). Out of 18 committees, five are exclusive for Democrats: Rules, Appropriations, Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Financial Services. The last two have only recently been promoted, and thus only members who joined since the committees were made exclusive are limited to a single assignment. To put that in context, nonexclusive committees include the still very powerful Armed Services, Budget, International Relations, and Judiciary Committees. And no one is arguing those are packed by region or controlled by a particular interest group.

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