Food

Hope and the new USDA chief

Coming together to work toward a sustainable food and farm future

On Wednesday, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack began his confirmation hearing to become the 30th U.S. secretary of agriculture with the promise to be a forward-looking leader who would make the USDA a 21st century agency. While his nomination has been unpopular among some members of the sustainable-agriculture community, there is hope that under his guidance the USDA can grow into a very different agency than it has been during the past four decades, when it's been run by secretaries such as Earl Butz. As the next head of the USDA, Vilsack will be charged with revamping a sprawling agency that has an annual budget of $89 billion and more than 92,000 employees, a task that he is uniquely qualified to do. In Iowa, which my family has called home for six generations, Vilsack is known to be a smart, capable administrator who has been willing to listen to the concerns of family farmers and rural advocates. While attending a Practical Farmers of Iowa conference this past weekend, where many of the state's most progressive and sustainable farmers gathered, there was almost universal agreement that Vilsack is capable of much more at the national level than he was as the governor of a former red state, where almost any progressive policy he would have put forward would have been blocked by a Republican-controlled Iowa House and Senate. CAFOs and GMOs That said, many are still upset over Vilsack's 1995 vote as a state senator to repeal local control (H.F. 519), which stripped local elected officials from having a say in where confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are located. His promotion of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has concerned members of the sustainable-ag community even more. They fear that his closeness with agribusiness companies will only prolong U.S. farm policies benefiting corporate agribusiness at the expense of family farmers. Here in Iowa, while we have been disappointed with many of our political leaders, we are pragmatic and understand when it is important to work with them and when it's time to hold them accountable.

Umbra on raw milk

Dear Umbra, My husband was raised with milk straight from the cow that he milked himself every morning, so he and his parents are very into organic milk. However, I am concerned about the benefits/dangers of some of the milk they are giving to our toddler. Could you elaborate on the differences of non-homogenized vs. homogenized, non-pasteurized vs. pasteurized, and any issues/benefits of drinking milk that is from a local farm but does not follow FDA regulations? Meaning it can’t legally be sold to you because it doesn’t follow all of the processing regulations that are required for milk to …

Fighting convenience

Does America have the food system that we deserve?

McDonald's is on a roll. Says the NYT: Six years into a rebound spawned by more appealing food and a less aggressive expansion, McDonald's seems to have won over some of its most hardened skeptics.The chain has managed to sustain its momentum even as the economy and the restaurant industry as a whole are struggling. Month after month, McDonald's has surprised analysts by posting stronger-than-expected sales in the United States and abroad. I've been won over all right. Won over to the argument that changing food policy in this country is a quixotic proposition. The article presents as progress that McDonald's responded to flattening beef consumption by going, quoth one executive, "at chicken hard." Firstly, um, ew? And secondly, learning that McDonald's now sells more chicken than beef worldwide doesn't quite feel like the revolution is right around the corner.

Tempest in a stock pot

White House chefs and the limits of personal choice

About a month ago, high-profile foodies got pretty amped up about whom Obama would choose as White House chef. Three of them -- Berkeley sustainable food doyenne Alice Waters, Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl, and New York City restaurateur Denny Mayer -- even got together to pen a letter urging the incoming president to replace the current White House chef with someone who chooses locally grown, organic food -- preferably sourced from an on-site vegetable garden. According to a New York Times account, the letter states: A person of integrity who is devoted to the ideals of sustainability and health would send a powerful message that food choices matter. Supporting seasonal, ripe delicious American food would not only nourish your family, it would support our farmers, inspire your guests, and energize the nation. Last week, Obama defied this gentle effort to convince him to send the incumbent chef packing. Cristeta Comerford, who has been in charge of cooking first-family meals for the Bushes since 2005, will retain her post, the Obama team announced. My first reaction to this news was disappointment. After choosing an agribiz-friendly pol as USDA chief, couldn't Obama at least make a symbolic nod in the direction of the sustainable-food movement by picking a new chef? Now I'm not sure what the fuss was about in the first place.

Food plight

Half of world's population could face climate-driven food crisis by 2100

"Ignoring climate projections at this stage will only result in the worst form of triage." The headline is from the University of Washington news release on a study in Science, "Historical Warnings of Future Food Insecurity with Unprecedented Seasonal Heat" ($ub. req'd). The quote is the study's powerful final sentence. The release explains: Rapidly warming climate is likely to seriously alter crop yields in the tropics and subtropics by the end of this century and, without adaptation, will leave half the world's population facing serious food shortages, new research shows ... "The stresses on global food production from temperature alone are going to be huge, and that doesn't take into account water supplies stressed by the higher temperatures," said David Battisti, a University of Washington atmospheric sciences professor. Worse, the study must also be considered a serious underestimate of likely impacts since, as is common in such analyses, they based their simulations on "the 'middle of the road' emission scenario, A1B." In 2100, A1B hits about 700 ppm with average global temperatures "only" about 3°C warmer than today. In fact, on our current emissions path, we are going to get much, much hotter. Figure. "Histogram of summer (June, July, and August) averaged temperatures (blue) observed from 1900 to 2006 and (red) projected for 2090 for (A) France, (B) Ukraine, and (C) the Sahel. Temperature is plotted as the departure from the long-term (1900-2006) climatological mean (21). The data are normalized to represent 100 seasons in each histogram. In (A), for example, the hottest summer on record in France (2003) is 3.6°C above the long-term climatology. The average summer temperature in 2090 [assuming A1B] is projected to be 3.7°C greater than the long-term climatological average." The results are still alarming:

Eat food. With Michael Pollan. Talk shop.

Grist cooks lunch for America’s leading food writer

Today Grist had the somewhat surreal experience of hosting Michael Pollan, the nation’s premier food writer, for lunch. And just to make it more stressful, we decided to do a potluck — each of us brought in a dish. Cooking for Pollan! Yikes! Happily, he enjoyed the food, and we had a nice conversation. We’ll have video of it soon, but three things he said struck me as particularly interesting, so I thought I’d briefly share them here. First, after conversation turned from Obama and Vilsack, I asked him how the situation for food policy could be improved in Congress. …

Centrist cabinet, progressive president?

What happened to the big win for progressives, the environment, and organic food?

Who found it more difficult to get excited about an Obama presidency, the Democratic Leadership Council or the progressive wing of the Democratic party? The DLC folks are riding high, calling themselves "The New Team." The progressives came away empty-handed. Progressives assumed change would extend to President-elect Barack Obama's Cabinet, but we never expected the change to be a reflection of the Clinton administration or, worse yet, the Bush administration. We thought change would mean, well, something different. New people, ideas, economic reforms, energy policies, a withdrawal from Iraq, and a new face to the world. The political junkies say Obama has loaded his cabinet with centrists. Progressives can only wonder why the world suddenly turned upside down. OK, it's his cabinet he can pick whom he wishes, but his picks seem a bit out of place. Like Michael Pollan eating a Luther Burger.

Fishing for stimulus

Fishermen who play by the rules deserve some help

Taking up Tom Philpott's food stimulus challenge, I suggest bailing out the fisherman. Of course, fish stocks internationally are still in serious decline -- you need look no father than the Atlantic bluefin tuna to see that. But according to a report on NPR, we're having some serious fisheries-management success stories on the West Coast. Now it's the local fishing fleets rather than the fisheries that threaten to collapse. At first, the government thought they had engineered a "soft landing" for fishermen when: ... five years ago many fishermen who trolled for groundfish agreed to give up their boats for a lump sum of cash. That dramatically reduced the size of the fleet. There are only about 160 bottom trawlers left in California, Oregon and Washington. As a result, nets are full and quotas are easily met. But now regulators are converting fishing quotas into a cap-and-trade system. There's no question that this is an important development. Since fishermen will be able to buy and sell portions of their quotas, they'll throw less of their catch overboard (dumping fish being the only legal way to dispose of excess catch). Under the new system, they'll just hop on the radio and buy some of the fishing rights from a fellow fisherman who has room to spare in his hold. Everything looks peachy so far, but all industries need a certain scale. As the fleets continue to shrink and more fishermen sell their quotas and their boats, fishing ports, which include processing plants and other supporting services, will shut down entirely. These are businesses that, unlike the meat industry's now defunct network of local abattoirs and butchers, have so far resisted centralization. So how about some incentives to keep these folks afloat? Fishermen should be encouraged to stay on the water, not to become fish stock brokers. If a little of the stimulus money can help us manage the fishermen along with the fisheries, it would be a boon to struggling coastal communities and would preserve fishing as an environmentally and economically sustainable tradition. Aside from the fact that any job lost is a crisis in this economy, it would be a shame that our success with the fish should lead to disaster for the people.

Think locally, act infrastructurally

President-elect Barack Obama and the new Congress can’t afford to turn their attention to reforming the food system. We’ve got two wars to fight, the Middle East conflict is raging again, the financial system is in chaos, and layoffs are mounting. And don’t forget the likelihood of trillion-dollar annual budget deficits for years to come. Food, it’s clear, is just too banal when matched up against those challenges. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. Even some veteran food-reform advocates accept the “food-must-wait” logic. “I think it’s somewhere between naïve and fairy tale to think [Obama's] No. 1 focus is going to …

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