Food

Secretary of biofuels ...

Vilsack chats up reporters about climate and ethanol

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack talked about climate change, renewable energy and ethanol blends during a conference call with reporters on Monday. Here are excerpts from the transcript: From Vilsack's opening comments on the call: I also want this Department to be a national leader in climate change mitigation, adaptation efforts. This of course will involve conservation, greater efficiency with the energy that we have, as well as new technologies and expanded opportunities in biofuels and renewable energy. I'm going to work to advance research and development and pursue opportunities to support the development of additional biofuels, wind power, and other renewable energy sources. We need to make sure that the biofuels industry has the necessary support to survive the recent downturn while at the same time promoting policies that will speed up the development of second and third-generation feedstocks for those biofuels that have the potential to significantly improve America's energy security and independence. I expect our farmers and ranchers will play a role in making progress on the great challenge of climate change and on other major environmental challenges. It's important to me that the USDA lead efforts to incentivize management practices that promote and provide clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat, and to help farmers participate in markets that reward them for sequestering carbon and limiting greenhouse gas emissions. It is my hope that the Farm Bill's provisions in terms of energy and conservation can be implemented promptly and properly and that we see the Forest Service as a new opportunity for us to engage in climate change mitigation/adaptation strategies. ... We also want the USDA to be a supporter of 21st century rural communities. We'll be looking at promoting the expansion of modern infrastructure, expanded broadband opportunities, affordable, energy-efficient housing in rural communities, expanded small business opportunities, and improving the quality of life through community facilities.

A shot in the arm

New energy drink is fair-trade, organic

Youguysomigodomigodhaveyouheardaboutthisnewenergyshot? It'sorganicandit'sfair-tradeandthatmeansit'sgoodforyouANDfortheplanetnottoMENTIONthefacthtatitgivesy ouawickedsweetbuzzomigodomigodI'vebeenwaitingforthisallmylife.

That's just nuts

More on the FDA's bumbling role in the peanut-butter salmonella outbreak

As a writer whose beat includes the food-safety system, I sometimes feel like political satirists must have felt in the Bush II era: unable to keep up with the extreme buffoonery of the ruling "elite," always one beat behind reality. The nationwide peanut-butter salmonella outbreak, caused by a single factory in Georgia run by Peanut Corporation of America, is a case in point. In a previous post, I tried to come to grips with it. The New York Times had revealed that Georgia officials, working on behalf of the FDA, had repeatedly cited the company for dire sanitary conditions -- and let it continue operating. I was stunned that a company with such a vast range and reach into the Americans' grocery bags would be allowed to continue after repeatedly demonstrating reckless practices. Now the FDA reveals during 2007 and 2008, the company found salmonella in its own products through in-house testing no fewer than 12 times -- and sent the paste out anyway. A lot of folks are seeing this episode as a case of corporate malfeasance. It is that, to be sure. But I want to look back to those Georgia health officials, working on behalf of the FDA, who were inspecting the plant in '07 and '08, diligently recording an epic series of sanitary misdeeds. What was done with their reports? Now we know that the company was actively testing the peanut butter for pathogens. Was the FDA? If not -- given the mounting evidence of reckless practices -- why not? For those who can stomach it, here is the FDA's official report [PDF] of what it found at the plant starting Jan. 9, when it finally began to move to close the plant -- after hundreds had gotten sick (mainly children) and several had died. Some highlights below the fold.

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.

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: