Paging Erin Brockovich! There’s mercury in our water soda pop! Courtesy Universal Pictures, Inc. High-fructose corn syrup doesn’t just deliver a jolt of sweetness to thousands of processed food items consumed by tens of millions of Americans each day. It also may add a touch of mercury, a powerful neurotoxin that may not be safe to consume at any level. That’s the message of two separate studies published last month. The first, led by a former FDA researcher named Renee Dufault and published in the peer-reviewed Environmental Health Journal, found mercury in nearly half of high-fructose corn syrup samples collected …
A few years back, I thought I was on to a Really Big Story: President Bush had plucked a man named Chuck Conner from his perch as president of the Corn Refiners Association -- a front group for Archer Daniels Midland, and the force behind those putrid high-fructose corn syrup ads -- and made him his "special assistant to the president for agriculture, trade and food assistance." Eventually, Conner became the USDA's deputy secretary -- widely seen as the agency's fixer, the guy who got things done. In the corn bubble in which I then existed -- some say I'm still there -- this seemed like a really big deal. A man who had essentially worked as a lobbyist for Archer Daniels Midland -- the company that singlehandely rigged up both the corn ethanol program and the high-fructose corn syrup market, two massive travesties -- was now advising the president on ag policy. And people ... yawned. Thinking back on it, of course they did. This was the Bush administration -- crony capitalism had been raised to the level of statecraft. These guys were handing billion-dollar no-bid contracts to the vice president's old company, to perform outsourcing functions in a war he himself had engineered. What was a bit of Oval Office bump-and-tickle with an industrial corn man? Well, for those of you who care, here's a newsflash: Conner waltzed out of Bush's USDA and into another top job at a big agribiz trade group: the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. Now, the group's name makes it sound a bit down-home, like a bunch of guys in overalls banding together to run a grain elevator. Don't be fooled. The NCFC is made up mainly of "cooperatives" that have scaled up to corporate size; many of them work in concert with agribiz giants like ADM to squeeze small farmers and workers. One glaring example is the giant entity Dairy Farmers of America, an NCFC member that controls a third of the milk produced in the U.S. DFA has been accused of colluding with milk-processing giant Dean Foods to squeeze farmers on price.
"I'm a big believer in community gardens ... both because of their beauty and for providing access to fresh fruits and vegetables to so many communities across the nation and the world." -- Michelle Obama, speaking at USDA headquarters
Are there more small farms or not? Everyone from Reuters to the NYT has documented what appears to be an increase in the number of small farms in the U.S. But blogging ag economist and former USDA Economic Research Service researcher, Michael Roberts disagrees. According to him (h/t Ezra Klein), the supposed increase in small farms represents the USDA potentially fudging the numbers: USDA has also been working harder and harder to find and count hiding $1000 potential farms. Most of these guys don't know they're farms and so they can be hard to find and difficult to entice to return their census forms. So non-response rates are growing, mostly for tiny farms that probably don't realize they're farms in the first place. Non-response? No problem. USDA just uses weights to account for the non-response which boosts the officially reported number of farms. The important revelation here is that the USDA uses statistical weighting to arrive at the numbers for these micro-farms since many of these people don't even self-identify as farmers -- and so their precision is entirely a question of their methodology, i.e. how they decide to model the presence/frequency of these small operations. Census weighting is, of course, both controversial and necessary. Counting everything by hand can have a larger margin for error than rigorous statistical modeling. Indeed, this "controversy" is right now at the heart of a monumental battle between Democrats and Republicans over the U.S. Census (just ask Sen. Judd Gregg). That said, there is nothing inherently wrong with the practice. However, even if your overall approach is solid, if you then change your weighting techniques from year to year, comparing annual changes is all but impossible. And that appears to be exactly what the USDA is doing.
On a recent morning, I heard a report on Morning Edition that jolted my attention from an extremely delicious cup of shade-grown fair-trade organic ultra-correct joe. (Public radio and fancy coffee: see Stuff White People Like.) The radio piece, by NPR correspondent Eleanor Beardsley, was called “In Paris, Culinary Education Starts in Day Care.” Now, as a group, Americans detest being told that any other country does any little thing better than we do here in the good old US of A. Not surprisingly, it is that very attitude that sometimes keeps us from being able to follow a good …
For those of us wondering what it would take to "localize" urban food systems, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has some answers. In a just-released study called "Food in the Public Interest," Stringer's office analyzes the New York City "foodshed" (a term we'll be hearing a lot of in the future) and comes up with a lengthy set of recommendations. If it does anything, the report emphasizes just how daunting a task it will be to reform food policy in this county. Much of what Stringer hopes to accomplish (especially in the area of nutrition programs) will be handled at the federal level. Still, the report emphasizes the outsized impact on issues that involve land use and commercial development that the control over zoning and business licensing regulations gives to local authorities. Attempting to eliminate food deserts in low-income areas by creating "Food Enterprise Zones" and reducing red tape in the permitting of food processing companies is exactly the kind of thing that zoning and licensing reforms can address. Interestingly, the report's conclusions on food deserts align with a recent study by two SUNY-Buffalo researchers. They suggest the solution may lie in thinking small (increase the number of neighborhood grocery stores) rather than big (spending tax money on attracting chain supermarkets). Indeed, the same focus on local regulations applies to the expansion of urban agriculture (first step: overturn New York City's beekeeper ban!) and to the development of a wholesale farmers' market and food storage network (so that industrial and commercial buyers can better take advantage of local agricultural output).
In Meat Wagon, we round up the latest outrages from the meat and livestock industries. ----- The industrial meat giants have entered a crisis phase. As I've reported before, the world's biggest chicken packer, Pilgrim's Pride, is languishing in bankruptcy, squeezed by high feed costs, its own addiction to cheap capital from Wall Street, now dried up, and ruthless competition from rival Tyson. Facing a similar situation, Smithfield Foods, the globe's biggest pork packer and hog producer, announced it's shuttering six plants and hacking away 1,800 jobs. Pilgrim's Pride has deftly used its bankruptcy to shunt much if the pain onto the backs of its farmer-suppliers, The Wall Street Journal reports (see extremely interesting related video). The article shows the massive risks required of the farmers who supply the nation with meat. Get this:
NAIROBI — The UN Environment Programme has unveiled an ambitious seven-point plan to feed the world without polluting it further by making better use of resources and cutting down on massive waste. A survey of the current state of food production and consumption released to a forum of the Kenya-based UNEP and world environment ministers showed colossal waste but also came up with green solutions. “Over half of the food produced today is either lost, wasted or discarded as a result of inefficiency in the human-managed food chain,” UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said of a 104-page report released on …
It was a Thomas Friedman column like so many others: the pundit careens through the roads of India, breathlessly marveling at the innovation he sees. Ain't globalization ... awesome? But this is Thomas Friedman 2.0, green version; this time, he's not being squired about by a loquacious and colorful local taxi driver, but rather by a pair of young Yalies in a "a plug-in electric car that is also powered by rooftop solar panels." And rather than gape slack-jawed at some software wizard's handiwork or a gleaming new factory, the pundit is bowled over by stuff like "organic farming in Andhra Pradesh, or using neem and garlic as pesticide." And that's not all. Friedman and his entourage visit a "local prince's palace to recharge their cars," and discover that his highness' business was "cultivating worms and selling them as eco-friendly alternatives to chemical fertilizers." Friedman once proclaimed that prospects for world peace hinged on dotting the globe with McDonald's franchises. Now he's blustering over organic farming. It's enough to make you gush about universal progress.
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